A federal court blocks California’s new medical misinformation law
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in California has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new state law that allows regulators to penalize physicians for disseminating false or misleading information about Covid-19 vaccinations and treatments to their patients.
The law, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, was intended to combat the waves of misinformation that have been whipped up over the course of the pandemic.
Although the wording of the law was narrow, Judge William B. Shubb of the US District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled Wednesday that his definitions of misinformation and the uncertainty about its enforcement were “unconstitutionally vague.”
The case is one of two legal challenges facing the law, the first of its kind in the nation trying to address an issue that the US Surgeon General, the American Medical Association and others said was causing unnecessary illness and life has.
In December, another judge in the Central District of California denied an injunction in a similar case. The split verdicts increase the likelihood that the law’s fate could ultimately be decided in the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
“I think the judge saw the law for what it was: an attempt to silence doctors who disagree,” said Jenin Younes, an attorney for the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington who represented five doctors who did have filed the lawsuit.
Judge Shubb, appointed by President George HW Bush in 1990, wrote in his ruling that he failed to consider whether the law violated the First Amendment’s protections of free speech. Instead, he found that the provisions of the law violated the plaintiffs’ rights to due process under the 14th Amendment.
The law expanded the power of the Medical Board of California, which licenses physicians, to label the dissemination of false or misleading medical information to patients as “unprofessional conduct.” This could result in suspension or revocation of the state’s license to practice medicine.
Judge Shubb ruled that the definition of misinformation – “false information that contradicts current scientific consensus and contradicts the standard of care” – could have a chilling effect on physicians’ interactions with their patients. He issued an injunction to block the law pending a full hearing on the complaint.
One of the plaintiffs, Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist who has challenged many government policies that emerged during the pandemic, said in an interview Thursday that the law was too rigid, particularly given the evolving understanding of how to deal with a pandemic like this one best can meet .
“The misinformation cited today is tomorrow’s standard of care,” he said.
Gov. Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.